Memories of the Civic Arena

Today the Pittsburgh Post Gazette shared great stories by legendary promoter Pat DiCesare about the history of Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena and the concert industry that grew up with it. A time-line of arena highlights and a short quiz accompanied the articles.

I’m sure everyone who grew up in the Pittsburgh area has many unforgettable memories of the concerts and sporting events they have attended at the arena. I can recall my parents first taking me to see Disney on Ice there as a child. Later I saw concerts by: Paul Simon, David Lee Roth, and Poison; and Pittsburgh Penguins and Harlem Globetrotters games among others.

Here are the articles that were in the paper. They are filled with great stories that will bring back memories and shed light on some rock history you probably didn’t know!

Civic Arena played big part in birth of ‘megaconcert’ industry

At the Arena: The nice, the rude, the outrageous

Arena timeline — Highlights of 50 years of entertainment


Civic Arena played big part in birth of ‘megaconcert’ industry
By Pat DiCesare

When I became involved in the music business in the late ’50s, all concerts were held at the 3,700-seat-capacity Syria Mosque in Oakland or the 2,000-seat Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall across the street.

Surprisingly in the early days of rock, it was difficult for one act to sell out these small venues, and promoters often had a hard time dealing with management at these venues, who preferred any act over a rock act because of potential noise and other problems.

There were other issues. Although the Syria Mosque was considered the prime venue for all types of concerts, it didn’t have air conditioning and often was too hot during the summer to host shows.

At the time, most promoters believed Pittsburgh didn’t need another concert venue. But the Civic Light Opera was the exception. It was meant to be played in the summer and needed an open-air venue. The CLO played stadiums and other outdoor facilities but needed a permanent home for the summer that would be both comfortable and provide theater-style seating. Having a retractable domed roof made sense and would ultimately give birth to the construction of the Civic Arena.
Too big for rock ‘n’ roll

When the Civic Arena — now the Mellon Arena — was built, I did not think that it would be a rock music venue. Who would want to see a concert in a gigantic sports facility?

So when the arena was ready to open in 1961, promoters were uneasy about risking their money at such a large venue. Not only did they fear the public would not want to pay to see a concert in such a huge facility, but the artists’ agents also were unwilling to let their act be the first to try this “experiment.” The agents wanted to be sure that the audience could see and hear their performer.

I had to hand it to the architects, though. When I saw the finished product, it was a beautiful sight, and I was proud that Pittsburgh had such a venue. It felt like space-age technology. The roof could open, it had an ice floor for hockey and skating shows, and at the same time it could host a concert.
The opening

The Ice Capades officially opened the arena on Sept. 19, 1961. During its 20-day run, the Ice Capades sold 189,270 tickets for a gross sale of $514,483. This was a phenomenal success. Suddenly everyone thought that the new arena was the right venue to have in Pittsburgh.

Although the Civic Arena was built with the initial help from the Kaufmann Foundation as a home for the Civic Light Opera, the public soon regarded the venue as a sports facility. Edgar Kaufmann Sr.’s foundation had contributed $1 million to push the idea of constructing it, but unfortunately he died before it was completed. He probably would have been disappointed with how the arena became more of a home for sports teams than the CLO.

Judy Garland made her way to the stage on Oct. 19, 1961, and became the first act to perform at the arena. To everyone’s surprise, the event sold out. There were 12,325 people in attendance and a whopping gross sale of $58,523. This was unheard of at the time. Many attributed it not only to the fact that Judy Garland rarely made personal appearances, but also that people wanted a chance to see this new architectural masterpiece.

When the arena opened, the big question for the rock promoter was, can we afford to use this huge facility? No one was positive that the arena’s greatest feature — the retractable roof — even worked. Engineers claimed that sometimes the roof did not close properly. Therefore, you really couldn’t advertise that the roof was going to be open for the show. I never did, at least.

There were other expenses that were unique to this arena that the public never saw. What’s involved if the arena hosts hockey on Monday, a concert on Tuesday and basketball on Wednesday? A nightmare.

After the hockey game on Monday, an all-night crew, in addition to normal cleanup, covered the ice floor with a Homasote type of insulation. Then it set up as many as 2,000 chairs on the floor — over the ice — to prepare for the concert that evening.

After the Tuesday night concert, the all-night crew arrived, cleaned up and removed the temporary seats. Then, it lay down a new floor for basketball.

All of this was very expensive and was the major reason why most promoters in the ’60s were not enthusiastic about using the Civic Arena to host rock concerts.
Pushing an idea

At this time, Tim Tormey — my mentor and partner — was attempting to become the dominant promoter of the city. Lenny Litman, the owner of the Copa nightclub, was his toughest competition. As the arena was being built, guys such as Tim and myself in the record business were starting to take over the concert promotion business.

With the success of the Judy Garland show, we considered producing a rock show at the arena. That could really make us big. And since we were all in the record business, we felt that the record companies and local disc jockeys would be instrumental in the success of the show.

Nick Cenci and Herbie Cohen were two successful record distributors and the type of people to do a show at the arena. Unfortunately, they were hesitant like everyone else.

“The arena,” Nick shot back in response to Tim’s plans to host a concert at the venue. “Isn’t that a big risk?”

“Not if I can get the acts for nothing or very little,” Tim countered. “We have to talk to Porky [Chedwick] to use his influence with the record companies. If we can get the big names to come without paying them or just paying their expenses, I think we can make money. If we do well, we can then decide if we should pay.”

Tim’s only other request? The acts had to be big.

Our main concern was the cost of producing such a show. We thought one of the best ways to reduce that cost was to get the record company and the artist to work with us.

When a record was released, the record company sent out the national promotion man to do whatever it took to get the record played. It was not uncommon for the act to do public performances at no charge for the local disc jockey, which worked out great considering a lot of the disc jockeys had record hops at the time.

The radio stations permitted the disc jockeys to promote their record hops, which were considered part of the disc jockey’s compensation. The record companies knew that the disc jockey could make or break the record.

In the ’50s, the two most influential disc jockeys here were Jay Michael at WCAE and Barry Kaye at WJAS. Some of the lesser-known DJs had a special niche audience, and one of the least known of them all, Porky Chedwick, would turn out to be the one with the greatest influence.

Porky was sincerely interested in helping new artists get noticed. He would give anyone a break. “The Platter Pushin’ PaPa” played music that KDKA, WCAE and WJAS would never dream of playing. Porky would play new, unproven music from black artists when most of his white counterparts would not.

Tim was the best at figuring costs and keeping things to a bare minimum. He went to Charlie Strong, general manager of the arena, and negotiated a deal with the venue that would save $1,000 on the traditional guarantee with the arena.

“After all, Mr. Strong,” Tim said reassuringly, “if we do well with this concert, other promoters and agents will be beating down your door to bring rock shows here.”

Mr. Strong not only gave Tim the deal he wanted but he also reduced the maintenance costs associated with changing over the ice at the arena.

Finally, someone was sold on the idea.
Arena’s 1st rock ‘n’ roll show

It was official. Porky Chedwick of WAMO radio would present the first major rock ‘n’ roll show at the Civic Arena. “Live in person for one night only,” Porky urged the audience with his best endorsement. “Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Castelles, Jerry Butler, The Flamingos, The Angels, The Blue Belles, and Pittsburgh’s own — The Skyliners.”

The show was held on May 11, 1962, and I still consider it one of the greatest concerts at the Civic Arena. Surprisingly, most of the acts received very little compensation. They were happy to do a favor for Porky. After all, he played their records first and took a gamble on acts when no one else would.

Finding the best way to sell the tickets was one of our biggest challenges. Was someone from Punxsutawney willing to drive all the way in to Pittsburgh to buy concert tickets at the Civic Arena box office?

Buying them at the box office had its advantages because concertgoers could pick their seats from a seating chart. Moreover, arena staff also held the best tickets to sell at the box office. The arena ticket sellers consequently became influential because everyone who wanted good tickets knew the sellers were the ones to contact.

Since we were all in the record business, we thought another idea was to sell tickets at record stores. A local chain of record stores seemed to be the solution — National Record Mart.

The Shapiro brothers — Sam, Howard and Jason — were by far the best in the retail record business. They saw the opportunity immediately. We knew the Shapiros and trusted them with our ticket money.

The arena issued a small number of tickets to the Shapiros, which they distributed to each of their 34 stores in the Tri-State area. They actually ran the ticket agency out of a cigar box located under the counter in each store. At stores far from Pittsburgh, the customer would receive a blue voucher that reserved the ticket at the arena box office on the night of the show.

At first, we didn’t want to levy a service charge. We thought it wasn’t fair to our customers. If the ticket price was $2.50, that’s all they should pay. The Shapiros, however, thought that they should be compensated. After a long discussion, we all agreed on a service charge of 25 cents per ticket. It was a hard pill for us to swallow.
‘Shower of the Stars’ series

Now that we saw the success of the Porky Chedwick show, and we felt we had a good handle on how to sell more than 10,000 tickets for a show, Tim and I were ready to start using the Civic Arena as a concert venue. Our goal was to assemble enough star power by promoting several hit rock acts of the day and packaging them on one stage as our “Shower of Stars” series with KQV Radio. We would have up to 10 acts for one show. Amazingly, we knew that very few acts could even sell out the 3,700-seat Syria Mosque on their own so we needed 10 acts to sell out the arena.

Our first “Shower of Stars” show was June 14, 1963. It starred Dion, The Chiffons, The Shirelles, and Freddy Cannon. The show did extremely well, but there would not be another rock concert at the arena until Tim and I promoted the Beatles on Sept. 14, 1964. The Beatles show easily sold out to more than 12,000 for a gross sale of about $75,000.

Boy, did the concert business change after the Beatles. That’s when the arena-rock era truly started. The Beatles were the first act that was big enough to sell out an arena on their own. Yet, by the end of the ’60s, there were probably more than 20 acts that did so.
New rock industry

These were the early days of “megaconcert” promoting. It was the start of the rock concert as we know it today. Back then, folks such as Tim and myself in Pittsburgh, Bill Graham Productions in San Francisco, Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia, Belkin Productions in Cleveland and Sid Bernstein in New York were each inventing a new business — “rock concert promoter.”

It was an exciting time for us. Even though we were competitors, we shared cordial relationships. It wasn’t uncommon to get a call from Mike Belkin asking how “such and such” band did for me in Pittsburgh or how I think an act would do in Cleveland. And we, of course, paid attention to how shows did for them in the trade magazines such as Billboard.

In the ’60s, we still weren’t sure which way the business was headed. Was rock ‘n’ roll really here to stay?

What really locked me in as the promoter in Pittsburgh was an exclusive lease that Tim and I were able to get with the arena. This was bad news for other promoters around the country who were trying to promote an entire arena tour with a band. I still remember getting one of those famous angry, rant-filled calls from Bill Graham. He had the Rolling Stones on tour and was cursing me up and down about why he had to go through me to book the Civic Arena. However, it usually worked out well for both of us. I would simply have the outside promoter cut me in on the show and I would do their legwork and advertising in the city.

By the late ’60s, it was apparent that rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay. In 1965, we had the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones (who drew a paid attendance of only 9,131), and our Christmas Shower of Stars. In 1966, we once again did three shows at the arena. We reached a benchmark of six rock concerts in 1967.
DiCesare promotions soar

After Tim left Pittsburgh to become head of the Dick Clark Productions concert division in Hollywood, I continued to promote concerts in Pittsburgh for the next several years under the names University Attractions, Pat DiCesare Productions and, finally, DiCesare-Engler Productions.

When we thought that no one could do more than four rock concerts a year in the city, I did nine in 1968, 10 in 1969, 16 in 1970, and 22 in 1971. It kept growing from there.

Although my exclusive lease with the Civic Arena ended in 1973, we continued to do most of the shows at the arena for the next three decades.
Amphitheater rock

Almost 50 years later, I believe I was lucky to have Pittsburgh as my territory for concert promotions. Looking back, I think Pittsburghers had a stronger interest in rock music than other markets. And they loved seeing concerts at the Civic Arena. Sure, other markets were much bigger than ours, but back in the ’70s and ’80s, almost every year the Civic Arena was one of the Top Ten in gross concert ticket sales for arena-sized venues in the country. Although I’m sad to see the Civic Arena go, I think it’s fitting that this historic concert venue will forever belong to my generation of concert promoters. Concerts are done today by large multinational corporations that are more concerned with pleasing their shareholders than the people of Pittsburgh.

We as promoters lived in the city and cared for the people who came to our shows. We wanted to make it easy for the customer to get a ticket regardless of where they lived. We wanted to keep the ticket prices low. I noticed that an out-of-town promoter has James Taylor (whom I’ve played many dates) playing the arena in June. The top ticket price is about $400 with a low price of $68. That doesn’t seem right to me.

Rarely does a day go by that someone fails to stop me and talk about a show they saw at the arena and how special it was to them. It’s been 46 years since the Beatles played at the Civic Arena, and I still get more people who want to talk about that concert than all the other concerts combined.

I’ve always had this theory that to each concert attendee, every show is their Super Bowl or Stanley Cup. They’ve waited forever for certain acts to play, and when they finally see that show, they remember it for the rest of their lives.

In the early days, I used to emcee the concerts myself. I would step on stage in front of a sell-out crowd at the arena and introduce the band. And as I would gaze upon the sellout crowd cheering below, I would sometimes quietly think to myself, “I had something to do with this. I had the pleasure of bringing a few hours of happiness to these people. They will remember this night forever.”

At the Arena: The nice, the rude, the outrageous
By Pat DiCesare

I am often asked “Who was your favorite act?” or “What was your best show?” Or “Who was the nicest act?

In the early days, artists appreciated anything I would do for them. They were grateful. If I was able to get their record played, they remembered that forever and were loyal to me. After a while, unfortunately, that changed. Most of what sticks in my mind are all of the greedy and selfish behaviors that our rock heroes exhibited over the years.
“Get rid of them or I won’t go on”

The Beatles were without a doubt the most celebrated and well known of all the concerts we promoted. I never cared too much for the Stones. The first time the Stones came to town was around the same time as the Beatles, but they did poorly in comparison. The next time they came, I assured them that they would do well. I went to WDVE — which promoted almost all of my concerts — to ask them to hype the show. It sold out to more than 14,000 — the largest crowd I ever had up to then.

Bob Harper, program director of DVE and a good friend of mine, was backstage with all of his station’s disc jockeys, who introduce the acts. They were proud that their station did such a good job promoting the Stones.

It was intermission and I was at the box office when the phone rang. John Woods, the box office manager, answered the phone. “That was Mick Jagger,” he said. “He wants to see you in his dressing room.”

That was never a good sign. Anytime an artist wants to see you in the dressing room, expect a problem.

When I reached the dressing room, Mick asked, “Who are all those people behind the stage?”

“They are the disc jockeys from WDVE. They are doing the emceeing for the show.”

“Well I don’t want anyone back stage, and I don’t want anybody emceeing the show. Get rid of them now!”

“But Mick,” I told him, “You don’t understand. They are with the show. Their station did a great job promoting you and presenting the show. It is in your contract that they can announce you.”

“Either you get rid of them or I won’t go on,” he said.

Bob Harper was not too happy with this news. “We have a deal. You can’t do this to me. You go back and tell him that,” he said.

I told him that Mick was adamant.

“Well, you tell him that if we don’t announce him, WDVE will never play another Rolling Stones record again. I will break every Stones record on the air and tell the audience what he is like. Go on tell him,” he yelled.

I could barely hear him over the loud roar of the crowd, “We want the Stones! We want the Stones.”

Mick Jagger wouldn’t back down. “Do you hear that crowd screaming for us? You tell him that I don’t need him or his radio station and that he will have to play my records anyway.”

It was one of the most difficult things that I had to do. Unfortunately for me, it affected my relationship with Bob.
Will the real Sonny and Cher please stand up?

Sonny and Cher — a sold-out affair on Aug. 15, 1972 — was another great show. At the time, I managed a brother and sister group called The Walkers who could imitate any of the acts.

When they learned I was bringing Sonny and Cher in, they asked for two tickets in the front row. I thought they were just big fans of the group. However, I had failed to realize just what they planned to accomplish with the request.

On the night of the show, they dressed like Sonny and Cher. They looked exactly like them. They hired a limo and drove up to the arena entrance. They were escorted into the arena and all the way to the front row. People rushed up to them, taking pictures and getting autographs. The Walkers were creating quite the scene.

When the real Sonny, who was back stage, peeked at the crowd, he saw The Walkers imitating them.

There was another call to the box office.

“What is going on down by the stage?” he asked.

I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Either you get rid of those two or we are not going on,” Sonny yelled.

Several security guards and I had to escort The Walkers to the back of the arena. They changed clothes, and I sat them in the back. Sonny was furious. The Walkers were just trying to have fun, but it could have cost me my reputation.
Dom Perignon

The English acts were always difficult to deal with. In 1970, I played Led Zeppelin at the arena, which sold out as expected. The group wanted two cases of Dom Perignon champagne for the dressing room.

I had several runners whose jobs were to fetch what the acts demanded, the “rider requirements.” The dressing room was the hockey team’s locker room. All the walls and floors were concrete. We tried to buy the two cases of Dom but to no avail. Horne’s Department store, the premier liquor store at the time, said that “In all of the city of Pittsburgh, you will not find two cases of Dom. You must order that item well in advance.”

I dispatched my runner to all the state stores in the Tri-State area to fill up two cases with Dom and the next best thing he could find.

Before Led Zeppelin arrived, the two cases of champagne were placed in the dressing room. Several hours later, I was again summoned to the dressing room.

“What is this?” the manager asked.

“Champagne?” I responded.

“Champagne. You call this garbage champagne?” he yelled.

I tried to explain the incredible effort it took to gather up the champagne to fill the cases, but he kept calling it garbage.

Then, he reached for a bottle, one that cost me about $100 apiece, and threw it against the wall. Again and again until all 24 bottles were smashed.

Two thousand and five hundred dollars disappeared before my eyes.
Saturday in the park

One of my favorite acts was Chicago. The group had an allegiance to me because I took a chance on them early in their career. In the mid ’60s they competed with Blood Sweat and Tears for the same audience. I thought that Chicago was the better group and I helped them to get radio play and brought them to the arena before they were really big. By 1972 I had played them more times than any other act, and the show always sold out.

One time I had Alice Cooper scheduled for Three Rivers Stadium in June and Chicago scheduled for July 11. Unfortunately, the Alice Cooper date at Three Rivers Stadium got flooded out, and I had to reschedule it to the only date the group had available — the same day as the Chicago gig at the arena.

I didn’t want to do that because it could affect sales for the Chicago show, but I had no choice. On that night, I had to be at both the stadium and the arena. I made sure I arrived at the arena during intermission to see Chicago before they went on. Just as I got to the arena, I was summoned to their dressing room.

Before I went back, I checked on ticket sales. Only 8,800 had been sold — a poor showing.

“What are you doing running two shows tonight?” they barked when I got to the dressing room. “Why did you book us the same night as you have a ball park date? You should know better.”

I had to do a lot of explaining. Their egos were bruised. They couldn’t handle the fact that the house didn’t sell out. Just for that incident my relationship with the agent was never the same. Agents definitely have short memories in this business.
The Doors — after Miami

One of the most stressful dates was the Doors. Jim Morrison had a reputation, especially after his “disrobing” in Miami, of performing drunk, swearing, taunting the police and inciting a riot. The first time I booked him in 1968, the mayor’s office forced me to cancel a sold-out show. I had to eat the advertising costs.

As the months passed, the city did finally let me present the show. I had to hire more police than any other show besides the Beatles. The police warned: “If he does anything immoral during the show, we are arresting him and you.”

Fortunately for my sake, he behaved well enough for not only one but two Civic Arena shows. However, if you listen to the live album from the May 2, 1970, show you can hear him taunting the police a bit.
Nicest acts

I would have to say that two of the nicest acts were the Jackson Five and the Osmonds. Both performed at the arena in 1972 and sold out. I met Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond, as well as their families. I was impressed with all of them, but I have to say that Michael was special. He had charisma even backstage.

Even though both grossed about $68,000 in sales for the night, the Osmonds ended up with more money, simply because they weren’t into all the frills associated with success. They didn’t spend money on their dressing rooms, hotels and limos like the other acts. They were plain folk.
Roundball classic

One of the greatest shows that I was ever involved with, however, was not a concert. It was a sports event. Sonny Vaccaro, my lifelong friend, and I conceived an idea for a high school basketball game called the “Dapper Dan Roundball Classic.”

The game premiered in 1965, a year after the Beatles. My goal was to get the best talent in the country every year and I wanted the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh to be its home. It instantly gained national significance. The arena became the recruiting mecca for college basketball for a long time. The game stayed in Pittsburgh until 1992 and continued on in other cities until 2007.
Our best show

Bruce Springsteen was probably the greatest for many reasons. The first time I saw him perform was in the mid-’70s at a show that DiCesare-Engler did at Kutztown State University. I remember running to the phone to call Rich Engler. I told him, “I just saw the greatest rock ‘n’ roll act of all time. We’ve got to get the guy to Pittsburgh. This guys’s gonna be huge!”

We played him everywhere from the Stanley to the stadium, but you could depend on a Civic Arena sell-out from the Boss every time. You also knew that the crowd was going to behave. Pittsburgh loved Bruce Springsteen. We even gave Mayor Richard Caliguiri tickets for the Born in the USA tour. Bruce would sell out so fast, and I would get so many ticket requests, that I would have to change my home answering machine to start off, “If you’re calling about Springsteen tickets …”

He did not let his fame go to his head. He was always a pleasure to deal with. When he played his first show for us at the Syria Mosque, he wanted something to eat late at night. So Rich took him to a nice restaurant. Bruce wore jeans and a T-shirt and he ordered corn on the cob and apple pie.

That’s Bruce Springsteen.

One thought to “Memories of the Civic Arena”

  1. My goodness,
    Left Pittsburgh in 1975,coming back a few times to see family. I was devasted to learn of the Syria Mosque beiing torn down. What a magnificent structure. The Civic Arena, oh my what memories. I remember Perry Cuomo doing his television show live from the arena and I think it was the frst time the Dome was opened. Doe anyone remember Mick Jagger getting a jolt of electricity from the microphone and subsequently not touching the mike? Remembering a gala concert in the late 60’s where anyone who was anyone in the Rock circuit of the 60’s appeared, and Iron Butterfly halting their venue because the sound system failed. And lastly, The BEATLES…..played for less than 30 minutes and in that time influenced as to who I am today. But no more Arena? A travesty!! Aas Joni Mitchelle sang,”They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!!!!

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